This post contains personal referral links that pay me points or miles. I appreciate your support of the blog, should you use them.

Picking up a new credit card with an excellent welcome offer is always a great way to augment your points and miles balances. I try to make sure I pick up a card when the sign-up bonus is highest, ensuring that I’m not leaving any points on the table. But…there are a few times where I have decided to get a credit card without a sign-up bonus.

Sound crazy? There are a times where this might not be a bad idea. I will walk through some questions to ask to make sure that you’ve considered all the variable. You need to be absolutely sure you’ve done the math to make sure that picking up a credit card without a sign-up bonus will indeed provide value.

Determining If A Credit Card Without a Sign-Up Bonus Is Worth It

Whenever I start shopping for a new credit card product, I am often drawn to those with the largest sign-up bonuses. The “quick and easy” cards are especially tempting, such as the AAdvantage Aviator Red where you can often score 60,000 American Miles after paying the fee and making a single purchase. The welcome offer should certainly be a consideration. But it shouldn’t be the only consideration.

Here are several things I like to ask each time I start looking for a new credit card product:

  • Am I eligible to be approved for this card?
  • What is the net value of the sign-up bonus (value of miles/points/cash less any annual fee)?
  • Am I eligible for a sign-up bonus for this particular card (taking bank rules into consideration)?
  • What is the immediate value of other card perks?
  • Does this card fit my travel needs and plans?
  • What is the ongoing value of the card (spend bonus categories, annual perks, etc.)?
  • Are their other cards that provide a better value, both short and long-term?

This is roughly the order I would ask these questions. If you’re ineligible to be approved for a card, there’s no need to continue. After that, I usually weigh the sign-up bonus, both its value and whether I’m eligible.

credit card without a sign-up bonus

Immediate Versus Ongoing Value

Getting a new card primarily for the sign-up bonus definitely prioritizes immediate value. Sure, there are instances where the ongoing value is also excellent (e.g. the Hilton Aspire Card, in my opinion). But it’s usually immediate value that I’m targeting. I try to only sign up for new products that offer at least $500 in value. This isn’t typically cash; I just estimate the value of the bonus points or miles.

When you pick up a credit card without a sign-up bonus, everything comes down to the long-term value. The value of the card perks, including additional value from spend, should all be included. This might be the annual free night you get from a hotel credit card, waived bag fees from a airline credit card, or hotel elite status.

The value of ongoing perks can be hard to pin down. I always make very conservative estimates for things like Priority pass access, hotel elite status, and such.

The value of any spend also needs to be considered, but only in incremental value over what you would get by using another product. For example, I could use my Double Cash card to buy an Amazon gift card at Staples for $100. I would net $2 in rewards. If I used my Chase Ink Cash card, I would earn 500 Ultimate Rewards points, which I value at a minimum of $7.50. The net value here of the Chase Ink Cash is therefore $5.50.

Most people have a very finite amount of spend to break up across their credit cards. If you’re banking on bonus categories as the bulk of value for a particular product, make sure you’re considering the value relative to other products.

Situations Where I Would Get a Credit Card Without a Sign-Up Bonus

There are only a few situations where I would want to pick up a credit card without a sign-up bonus. These are revealed by the questions I posed above. They are:

  • I’m ineligible for a sign-up bonus, but can get significant value out of a card during the period I’m ineligible
  • I’m ineligible for a sign-up bonus, but specific card perks make this product a must-have for my specific travel needs
  • A card either never offers a sign-up bonus, or routinely offers a very minimal sign-up bonus

These are the main three situations where it may be worth it. However, you still have to ask yourself: are their other cards that provide a better value? If I’m looking to apply for one new card, picking up a credit card without a sign-up bonus might prevent me from applying for another product with a sign-up bonus.

Here is an example close to home: you might really want the American Express Gold Card for the grocery and restaurant bonus categories. However, you’ve already had the old Premier Rewards Gold card and are therefore ineligible for the bonus. You are also at 4/24 under the Chase 5/24 rule, and picking up the Gold Card means you can’t pick up a Chase card.

There is an easy solution for this example, as I would simply pick up a Chase card (the current United MileagePlus Explorer Card offer for 65,000 bonus miles, perhaps), and then go on to apply for the Gold card. But some may be harder to navigate.

What I wouldn’t do is discount picking up a credit card without a sign-up bonus if it means you apply for a card that really doesn’t offer you much value. You only have so many applications you can submit before facing a lot of bank scrutiny. Don’t rush off and apply for the Amtrak card when it is offering 40,000 bonus points if you never plan to ride the train. I have points from sign-up offers that I have sat on for literally years. I’d expected to use them but never did. So much for immediate value.

Two Cards I Picked Up Without Any Sign-Up Bonus

The first card I ever decided to apply for without a sign-up bonus (once I’d found the world of points and miles, that is) was the Citi Double Cash. The card has very occasionally offered a sign-up bonus. But at the time I didn’t know if or when this would ever surface again, and I decided that 2% back everywhere was worth it. The Double Cash is a default card that I sometimes use for non-bonus spend.

The original goal was to accrue cash on hand to help offset travel costs I couldn’t cover with points and miles. But now that cash back can transfer to ThankYou points, I’m far more likely to go that route. In the case of the Double Cash, the ongoing return of 2% and unknown time-frame for any potential sign-up bonus convinced me that picking it up without a welcome offer was just fine.

The second credit card without a sign-up bonus I decided to jump on was the World of Hyatt Visa. Well…this isn’t exactly true. Turns out, I already had an old Hyatt Visa account, and I canceled it in anticipation of re-applying for the new, refreshed World of Hyatt Visa. However, during the 30 days I was waiting to be able to apply, Chase made the World of Hyatt Visa subject to 5/24.

However, the ongoing value of the new World of Hyatt Visa is very high for me, so re-opening the account and then converting the card to the new product was a must. Sure, I missed out on 60,000 Hyatt bonus points. But I used the card to achieve Hyatt Gloablist status for 2020.

One final card I almost picked up without a sign-up bonus is the American Express Blue Business Plus Card. There hadn’t been a public offer for a sign-up bonus. But it turns out that Amex was offering a sign-up bonus through the refer-a-fried program at the time. This was only for 10,000 Membership Rewards points. But 10,000 is better than 0, although I was ready to pull the trigger on the card for a bonus of 0.

Conclusion

It might not make sense much of the time to pick up a credit card without a sign-up bonus, but there are situations where it may be worth it. I could see picking up certain American Express cards, even if ineligible due to the once-per-lifetime policy on bonuses.

This is the situation I’m in with the Gold Card. I had the product when it was the Premier Rewards Gold card and already earned a bonus. This card has a decent ongoing value and I see enough value that I might apply for it without a sign-up bonus, but I want to wait until I’ve exhausted other card options before picking it up.

Always do the math for your own situation to determine the value of a product. I prefer immediate value, as this is more than the ongoing value for many products (we don’t have a ton of spend to distribute among products). But in some cases, picking up a credit card without a sign-up bonus can be completely worth it.